Is it OK to Make Fun of Older People?

Here are recent comments from a popular radio show; let us know if you think they crossed the line.

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"Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" is one of my favorite radio broadcasts. The National Public Radio news quiz show has a rotating panel of visiting wits and a celebrity guest each week, along with call-in participants who are asked to answer questions about recent events both real and fabricated. Host Peter Sagal has a sure touch in keeping the discussion lively and entertaining. And while Carl Kasell may have retired from doing the morning news on NPR, his familiar and comforting tones may still be heard here.

[See Best Affordable Places to Retire.] Last week's show featured, among other items, references to President Obama's State of the Union Address, Apple's unveiling of its new tablet computing device, the iPad, and a new Massachusetts law requiring daycare workers to brush the teeth of small children after a meal.

The repartee accompanying each item contained what to me was a gratuitous shot at older people. Maybe I expect too much from NPR. Maybe making fun of being old is not the same as making fun of people who are old. Or maybe I'm being overly sensitive. These were not death-panel jokes about euthanizing grandma under healthcare reform proposals. Just some zingers. Still, after repeated listening, which I did in order to transcribe the remarks, they just didn't sit well.

Here's what was said:

1. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada took a shot for being televised as yawning during the State of the Union. Panelist Tom Bodett, who makes a living being folksy, said people should cut Sen. Reid some slack. "The guy is like 80 years old," Bodett said. "It's 10 o'clock at night, right? He'd be yawning at a Hooter's mud-wrestling night." (Point of fact: Reid is 70 years old.)

2. In discussing the new iPad, panelist Luke Burbank said, "I think aesthetically it has a problem, though, because it looks so much like the iPhone. It looks like an iPhone for an elderly person." He later made reference to the device as suitable for " Reader's Digest large print" displays. And host Sagal piped in, "You turn it on by clapping."

[See Best Places to Retire.]

3. Our last candidate was related to a discussion of Massachusetts' new childcare law and whether it amounted to furtherance of "Nanny State" government policies. It is also courtesy of Burbank, who questioned whether the law would really lead to more kids brushing their teeth. "There is no possible way to create more of a negative association with brushing your teeth than to have some, like, you know, 70 year old lady with a mustache coming in [and] forcing a toothbrush into your mouth."

Please tell me what you think about these remarks. And if you're a brave soul, tell me what you think about social attitudes toward older people in general. Are they OK? Are they changing as Baby Boomers near retirement? Should they be changing?

[See Can Boomers Lead an Elder Revolution?]

Corrected on : Corrected on 02/04/10: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Peter Sagal.